George Walford: The Stage Before Religion

IC26 carried an abridged version of a talk, delivered to the South Place Ethical Society, entitled THE LOGIC OF RELIGION. It set out to show that religion is not, as many humanists maintain, a wholly irrational activity. Classification is the beginning of reasoning and Durkheim has shown, in Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, that the defining feature of a religion is the classification of phenomena and events into the sacred and the profane. This is a universal classification, something not achieved until it was accomplished by religion. Religion is the beginning of systematic classification and thus the beginning of reason. The beginning, not the completion; there are stages in the development of rationality, that follow on from religion, and these can well be regarded as different forms of humanism. The talk spoke of those who had not yet attained to religion as the worldly people; this is the group appearing in other applications of systematic ideology as the general body of the people, the protostatic or the expedient group; Walsby spoke of them as the ideological mass. This group tends to be more chameleon-like in its behaviour than any of
the others, but it remains within limits that can be specified at least in general terms. Within those limits it appears in a variety of expressions according to circumstances, particularly the social environment, and here we offer some comments on one of these as it appears in Religion and the Decline of Magic; studies in popular beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, by Keith Thomas (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1971). Thomas’s book has over seven hundred pages packed solid with facts and quotations; like the child’s history-book it tells more about its subject than most of us will want to know. The title may be slightly misleading; it suggests that attention is to be equally divided between the two fields but in fact magic provides the main theme, religion appearing hardly more than as it relates to this; nothing much is said about worship, theology, liturgy, eschatology, all that very large part of religion which has little to do with magic. The book supports the view taken in THE LOGIC OF RELIGION, saying:

A religious belief in order was a necessary prior assumption upon which the subsequent work of the natural scientists was to be founded. It was a favourable mental environment which made possible the triumph of technology. (p. 657)

Thomas follows standard academic practice in emphasising information more than comprehension. Assembling a vast number of facts about magic he makes no deep or extensive enquiry into the source from which it arises, its relation to social activities apart from religion or reasons for expecting it to follow one or another course in future. He does suggest it is declining, as a result not only of the growth of science but also because of the introduction of insurance, growing technology, better understanding of statistical probabilities and other changes reducing the uncertainty of life, but this comes in one brief chapter at the end. His main undertaking is not to explain magic, or show how it arises, but to demonstrate, with a wealth of detail, how it related to religion during his period. The book has separate sections entitled Magic, Witchcraft, Astrology and Allied Beliefs, and although it marks out the boundaries between these it pays little attention to any underlying unity, treating each of them singly. The result is that magic in that more general sense in which the term includes all these more specialised activities, (the sense in which the word is used in Thomas’s title) rather drops out of sight.

In this more general sense, in which witchcraft, divination, necromancy, conjuring, prophecy, chiromancy and some types of healing all rank as magic, the activity stands, as Thomas shows, in a distinct relationship to religion. It is concerned to produce benefits (mostly this-worldly, sometimes other-worldly) for the individual person while religion proclaims the inherent value and rightness of principled behaviour irrespective of its consequences for the agent. The view of religion as a set of rules, compliance with them guaranteeing eternal blessedness, is magical rather than religious.

There is no reason to disagree with Thomas’s view that the particular forms of magic he studies are becoming less common and less influential. But the absence from his book of any serious treatment of magic as a unitary tendency persisting through these various forms has the effect of leaving open the question whether the tendency may be persisting in forms as yet unrecognised. There seems to be reason to think this is the case. The fact, that modern technology possesses a base of experimentation and rational enquiry does not mean that those using it without understanding of what lies behind it are themselves acting rationally or scientifically. These devices enable them to use powers, which they do not understand, for their personal benefit, and that is exactly what the rituals of magic are believed to do.

Displaying commendable caution, Thomas comes no nearer to a definition of magic than to say, of the various beliefs he reports, that “one of their central features was a preoccupation with the explanation and relief of human misfortune” (p. 5). He has previously stressed the uncertainty and danger of life in his period (the 16th and 17th Centuries in England) but he does not of course suggest that this brought magical beliefs into being, only that some features of the beliefs and practices he reports will have been coloured by the conditions of the time. This scholarly tentativeness is attractive; it avoids contention and contributes to the very pleasant readability of the book. But it leads the reader holding something uncomfortably similar to a decorated balloon, a great deal of information but no certainty what it is information about, no established connection between the facts Thomas reports and other information possessed. The book, in fact, is rather like the early compendiums of natural history, a collection of items, each individually striking, but with no rational thread linking them together.

When magic, in all the different forms in which Thomas treats of it, is seen as one expression of that restriction of the area of moral concern to one’s personal affairs that is characteristic of the primal ideology, the ideology with which we all join adult society and which many of us retain throughout life, then its features become comprehensible and capable of being related to other social activities.

– – –

THE UP-TO-DATE way to address a yuppie stockbroker:
“Hey! Waiter!” (Acknowledgments to Austin Meredith).

Mrs. Thatcher’s government are slapping on restrictions right left and centre, on the BBC, on the newspapers, on the educational system. The Sunday Times, not a paper inclined towards revolution, has declared: “We stand gagged and bound hand and foot by restrictions unprecedented in peace-time Britain” (6 Dec 87). While imposing these restrictions the government continue to proclaim their belief in freedom.

We do not question that they are as capable of being economical with the truth as any other politicians, but on this occasion there is a more substantial explanation. The apparent contradiction arises from a consistent tendency (or pair of tendencies) of the ideology underlying right-wing political movements. Their behaviour falls into place when one distinguishes between the two major fields of social behaviour, the political-intellectual and the economic / material. The right consistently seek to establish freedom of action and competition in the economic / material field and control in the political / intellectual. This is the pattern Mrs.Thatcher’s government are following as they demolish nationalisation, throwing industry open to competition, while they impose the Spycatcher restrictions, cut back on the resources available to academics, and impose a standard curriculum on the schools.

(All recommendations under this head are guaranteed personally tested).

To Prove a “Non-Stick” Saucepan is not:

1 heaped tablespoon of fine oatmeal (Scots muesli)
quarter-pint plain tap water
1 large pinch of table salt

Place the water in the saucepan, add the salt, then slowly add the oatmeal, stirring constantly.

Bring to just below boiling-point on an electric stove.

Leaving the pan on the stove to simmer, turn the heat down to the minimum, but do not switch off.

Go out for the evening. On returning you will be greeted by a spicy smell, rather like roasting coffee, and a solid black deposit, irremovably stuck to the bottom of the pan.

from Ideological Commentary 32, March 1988.